Born to relate: the power of synergy

super synergy: this bright red paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia) both photosynthesizes and obtains nutrients from nearby plants

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I hear her breathing.
~ Arundhati Roy ~

The cosmos was born to relate. In microseconds the quarks and leptons produced by the Big Bang began to pair up, forming neutrons and protons to stabilize themselves while crashing into and away from one another millions of times a second. Within minutes they started to form more durable partnerships which, though still shaky at first, held as the new universe expanded and cooled. From that point, for 13.8 billion years, nothing has endured that isn’t in a mutually enhancing relationship with something else. And sometimes in a staggering number of them. As I sit here, I am relying on a trillion cells to work together to power my existence. 

I’m also relating to a trillion bacteria in my gut, helping to feed me as well as themselves. My 360 joints, 206 bones, and 600 muscles are working together so I can move with ease. My lungs are pairing oxygen with my bloodstream. The plants growing on nearby farms rely on their almost magical relationship with the sun’s photons to create carbohydrates so both they and I can thrive. In the woods behind my apartment I walk amid one complex interrelationship after another among trees, plants, roots, leaves, pollinators, sun, water, soil, microbes. 

super synergy: this deep red warriors plume (Pedicularis densiflora) both photosynthesizes and obtains nutrients from nearby plants
Warriors plume (Pedicularis densiflora)

A coyote, ghost-like, crosses the twilit trail ahead of me. An owl hoots in the depths of the trees. Both share the same relations operating in me. The ocean on the other side of the mountain is teeming with fish and plants — with all their inter-complexities — swimming in water that itself is an abiding relationship between the hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, and chloride formed in the first stars. The same water that gave birth to life and runs in my veins.

This is the exuberant bounty of synergy, one of cosmologist Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe that I have been exploring. When, as Brian says, we and everything around us are “working together in collaborative ways to arrive at strategies that are ever more successful in the great drama of life,’” we are entering into the optimistic and catalytic power of this force.

Ground cone (Kopsiopsis hookeri)

Synergy is both a cause and a result. Every new relationship brings about a reality different from the reality of each individual element. Elementary particles come together to create two gasses, hydrogen and oxygen. Those join forces to create flowing liquid. Water persists on a rocky planet and, warmed by its relationship to volcanic vents in its depths, is able in short order to foster the beginning of one-celled life. Those give way when two cells come together to better insure survival — the goal of synergy — and the cascade begins. 

The great leaps toward life in Earth’s history have both been driven by and resulted in leaps of synergy. Perhaps the greatest of these was when early cyanobacteria entered into a profound relationship with the sun. Photosynthesis was born, leading to all the possibilities of life that came after. All life forms, Brian points out, share several major challenges: energy, nourishment, reproduction. By developing a way to use the photons showering down on them, photosynthesizers were able to power themselves to create carbohydrates out of the abundant carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Almost all of life today, 3.5 billion years later, is alive because of that combination of synergies.

Synergy: lavender owl clover (Castilleja exserta) gets its nutrients by delelopeing relationships with neighboring roots
Owl clover (Castilleja exserta)

There are other leaps both in and stemming from photosynthesis. To form those carbohydrates, plants learned how to split hydrogen atoms from water to combine them with carbon. The water’s leftover oxygen molecules were released into the atmosphere and eventually built up to toxic levels. Coping with this challenge led to another great breakthrough — the evolution of oxygen respiration and mitochondria. These tiny powerhouse cells, tucked inside all living cells, use oxygen, a potent energizer,  to fuel life. 

Every single plant represents one synergy after another so I could have used any in my collection. I chose the flowers included here because they draw on their neighbors’ supplies of sugars. They are called parasites in the plant world, but I think that’s a bit harsh. I  prefer to thing of them as super-synergizers, developing root relationships with host plants and fungi to get the water and nutrients they need. Some are multitalented and also photosynthesize.  

Synergy:  Yellow beak false owls clover (Triphysaria versicolor) gets its nutrients by delelopeing relationships with neighboring roots
Yellow beak false owls clover (Triphysaria versicolor)

Flowering plants were themselves another leap in synergy by providing nectar to lure pollinators, leading to nutritious fruits to foster animal life. The vast abundance of life forms took off as relationships developed between pollinators and plants, paving the way for widespread sexual reproduction. By mixing genetic information, more and more varieties of plants evolved into all areas of Earth. This literal blossoming of flower, fruit, and vegetable life led to another synergistic leap when humans began to cultivate them to nourish themselves more reliably. That led to more human synergies: trade, gathering into urban centers, the mixing of ideas that inspired inventions in everything from governance to appliances.

Synergy is with us every day as we come together as individuals to form couples, families,  communities,  alliances, businesses, countries. Any time we are collaborating, cooperating, working together, operating as a pair or a group we are working within the power of synergy. Not all manifestations are in our favor. War and genocide result from tragic examples of social cohesion. Demagogues and cult leaders are experts at creating group adherence. Marketers take advantage of the desire to belong. Economies can soar and plummet on groupthink.

Synergy:  pink elephant head lousewort (Pedicularis groenlandica) gets its nutrients by delelopeing relationships with neighboring roots
Elephant head lousewort (Pedicularis groenlandica)

It’s an evolutionary power, which means it takes its time. Using the word ‘leap’ above works only in long hindsight. Yes, photosynthesis and mitochondria powered the great flowering of life on Earth. But in the millions of years it took each to fully develop, lots of species that couldn’t adapt or evolve fast enough died off. In order not to be one of them we need to heed Brian’s challenge: to allow synergy ‘to operate through conscious self awareness.’ 

To do that he recommends that we “re-symbolize what it means to be human in terms of our deep biological nature.’” If our identity arises from our biology — not our politics, our group, our nation — then we can easily see that we are kin not only with all other humans, but with all life, with the planet itself. We are planetary beings, here because cell after cell learned to cooperatively share genetic information for 4 billion years. We were created and continue to thrive by cooperation. 

Synergy: bright yellow and orange harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispidus) gets its nutrients by delelopeing relationships with neighboring roots
Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispidus)

The mindset of a planetary society would not only see that everything is intimately related but would understand that fostering those relations is the only way for anything to flourish in the long run. Such an orientation would bring in every voice. There is “so much genetic wisdom and power waiting to come forth,”  Brian says, from women, from indigenous people, from marginalized cultures. And from nonhuman voices. “They know amazing things… imagine what fish can teach us about how to build a vibrant ocean.”

Synergy, like all the powers, is related to the others. It leads to new emergence. It reflects our profound interrelatedness. It can arise from the destructive force of cataclysm as well as the seduction of allurement. It both fosters and can be stymied by homeostasis’ drive for stability. It overcame stagnation recently as Washington unexpectedly managed to get its act together and make a major move on climate change. California, not unexpectedly, did even more. Those synergies followed decades of work by many thousands of people working together. The time these collaborative efforts can take is endlessly frustrating to us time bound humans who find it hard to cope with a cosmos for whom a million years is a day’s work.

Synergy: off white cream sacs (Castilleja rubicundula) gets its nutrients by delelopeing relationships with neighboring roots
Cream sacs (Castilleja rubicundula)

Yet the great comfort in Brian’s powers is that they are ever operating through us, ever moving toward fuller expressions of life. We embody synergy “because we were constructed by it.” It’s an energy of boundless potential, the realm of the “visionary, mystic, dreamer,” who don’t “just reason about the wealth of possibilities, they can feel them.” The world of the optimist who can stand amidst “the death throes of western civilization” and the persistence of some of its most challenging features, and see “a more powerful society emerging.” A society that looks to Earth for wisdom and guidance as it creates a future that works for all life and for the planet that birthed it.

Synergy: off white and pink striped coral root (Corallorhiza maculata) gets its nutrients by delelopeing relationships with neighboring roots
Striped coral root (Corallorhiza maculata)

Top photo: Red paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia)

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Related posts:

Deep green maple leaves and ferns in the forests of Peterson Bay, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford


To love plants is to be in awe of photosynthesis. A crucial, we-wouldn’t-be-here-without-it miracle. Its ramifications are so vast that once it showed up, it dictated all of the evolution that followed. 

La Montagne Sainte Victoire et le Chateau Noir, c1905, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo


An unusual combination! How do they mesh? It’s all about perception and vision, the ability to see beyond the surface of our knowledge and habits to the radiant possibilities and pathways beyond.

Giant red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford


Gorgeous parasites, the castilleja genus is both radiant and smart, with roots that read their neighbor’s presence, and head over to borrow nutrients. They bring up a fascinating question: what do plants know?

3 thoughts on “Born to relate: the power of synergy”

  1. To quote you, Betsey, from this wonderful new blog, “We embody synergy because we were constructed by it. It’s an energy of boundless potential, the realm of the “visionary, mystic, dreamer,” who don’t just reason about the wealth of possibilities, they can feel them.” I adore the distinction you make between ‘reasoning’ and ‘feeling’ the wealth of possibilities. Your guided tour through the power of synergy is utterly marvellous. So many threads you weave together, and as usual, the ‘visual voices’ of the plants you choose to re-present your thoughts is stunning. So grateful to you, and your exquisite work.

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